Greetings. On a walk through downtown Chicago yesterday afternoon I happened upon a building that was originally built for the London Guarantee Accident Company in 1923. It’s kind of an odd name if you take it literally…an insurance company that could guarantee that you would have an accident. Not a particularly brilliant idea for you or for them. Though I’m sure that wasn’t their intention, the name carved into the building in stone did bring a smile. But under this sign and just outside the entrance to a local branch of the Corner Bakery which now occupies part of the retail space, the words “guarantee” and “accident” quickly took on new meaning when I met a stranger named Linda who, cup in hand, was trying to get $37 to pay for a room at a less than perfect hotel.
Let me backtrack to suggest that while there is no good place to be homeless, Chicago in the middle of winter presents additional challenges. And there are a lot of homeless people in Chicago. At least the sun was shining yesterday, but the temperature never got above 30 degrees and the place where Linda was standing seemed to be mostly in the shade. But it was her “best place,” or so she believed, based on nearly two years of trial and error that comes from living on the streets. A life that seemed, from her perspective, to be almost “guaranteed” by a number of setbacks, challenges, less than perfect choices, and even accidents that had occurred in her life…but for which there was no insurance policy.
And this spot, next to the door of a restaurant, was where she felt most hopeful that she would get enough money for a night indoors and a bit of food. “Why don’t you go to a shelter?” I asked somewhat naively. “Cause they’re all full of bedbugs and they ain’t so safe,” she quickly replied. ‘Not as safe as being out on a Chicago street in the cold,’ I wondered to myself. A scary thought for those of us who go to sleep each night in the comfort of our warm homes or nice hotels.
“Can I at least buy you a meal,” I asked after learning more of her story. “That would be nice,” she replied and I took her inside to look at the menu and pick whatever she wanted. Then after she placed her order I encouraged her to sit down for a while and warm up. “I can’t do that,” she told me. “Why not? You’re a paying customer,” I suggested. “Not really,” she quickly responded, “but that’s not it. I can’t spend any time inside if I want to make my $37 before it gets dark.” “Then let me also get you a large hot drink to warm you and your hands up a bit until the food is ready.”
Two years on the street. A sharp contrast to the frustrations that many of us face when we have to work long hours or come in on the weekend. Or when things don’t go just as planned in our work or personal lives.
Two years on the street. No doubt filled will more challenges than most of us will ever know. And yet, through it all, Linda and too many others have somehow figured out how to endure. How to be more resilient and resourceful that any of us give them credit for. Skills that would be incredibly valuable in most of our companies or organizations if only the circumstances were slightly different.
As all of you who read this blog know, I’m a keen believer in the importance of strangers…and a keen believer in their power to teach us things we don’t know or provide the missing piece in a puzzle that matters in our work or personal lives. But how many of us believe that any stranger could teach us something important? And how many of us take the time to find out? Especially from a homeless woman struggling to just get by.
Yet here I was understanding more clearly the challenge we face as a society and the challenges we face as companies in times when a slowly improving economy is testing our abilities to create greater value with fewer resources. To be much more innovative, resilient, and resourceful than we have been before. By understanding what it means to just get by.
Because if Linda can survive and hope for a better day, the rest of us have little or no excuse for not making the most of the opportunities in front of us.
We win in business and in life when we take the time to connect with strangers from all walks of life. And when we find the time to not only learn from them but acknowledge that they matter.